Research examines how virtual reality can treat chronic pain

Research aims to provide evidence of the types of people who will respond to and benefit from virtual reality as a treatment for chronic pain.

Swinburne is conducting research that will investigate how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could be used to treat chronic pain.

In collaboration with the university’s health partner, Medibank, a team of Swinburne researchers will examine how people experiencing chronic lower back pain interact with VR in Swinburne’s Virtual Reality Theatre.

Department chair of Health and Medical Sciences, associate professor Rachael McDonald, will lead the project, which aims to identify the types of people who will respond well to VR and AR therapy as a pain treatment.

As the lead in chronic disease and disability research in Swinburne’s Iverson Health Research Institute, McDonald said chronic pain needs to be addressed from a number of areas, both physically and psychologically.

“Our aim is to find out what affects people’s experience in VR and AR and what will help or hinder their engagement in the program.

“Once we have assessed the participants’ quality of movement through motion capture suits, they will interact with VR through two existing programs. We will then ask their thoughts on the experience and further develop the programs to address their needs,’ said McDonald.

The study will require support from experts in a range of fields, from anatomy and physiotherapy, to interactive media and astrophysics to assist with the VR technology.

McDonald will work with researchers from across the university, including:

  • Professor Kim Vincs – professor of Interactive Media
  • Associate Professor Amanda Benson – course director of Exercise and Sport Science
  • Dr Joshua Ameliorate – lecturer in Human Medical Anatomy
  • Associate Professor Christopher Fluke – Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing
  • Dr Stephen Jeal – VR designer and developer
  • Dr Mark Merolli – Academic director of Digital Health and Informatics
  • Dr Adrian Pranata – lecturer in Physiotherapy
  • Dr Myrla Sales – Postdoctoral Research Fellow

The project is one of many strategic collaborations between Swinburne and Medibank as part of a three-year partnership supporting the health and wellbeing of the Swinburne community.

Medibank chief medical officer Linda Swan said it is an exciting step forward in exploring the use of alternative treatments for chronic pain, which affects more than 20 per cent of the Australian population.

McDonald hopes this study will allow the team to develop technology that can be used in further research into VR and chronic pain and that can ultimately be applied in a clinical environment.

“Using VR and AR as a distraction for acute pain is increasingly being used as a technique, but what is more novel is the ability to intervene in chronic pain,” she said.

“For the first time, we hope to have evidence of what type of person will or won’t respond to VR and AR therapy to address their chronic pain.”